Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"L. of G.'s Purport" (1891)
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in the last section of Leaves of Grass supervised by the author ("Good-Bye my Fancy" [1891–1892]), this twelve-line lyric was apparently fashioned from three topics, each explored earlier in a separate poem: the aim of Leaves of Grass, the way it grew, and the approach of Whitman's death.

Of these, the most valuable to examine is the first because it is the most complex and controversial. That he included his concern for his own death, which could not have been more than months away, shows his lifelong ability to link the most abstract and universal to the most personal. His explaining how Leaves of Grass grew was a common topic in his writing.

The first two lines throw light on the less coherent issue of Whitman's purpose, although it is an issue he often addressed: "Not to exclude or demarcate, or pick out evils from their formidable masses (even to expose them,) / But add, fuse, complete, extend—and celebrate the immortal and the good." The surprising first line, giving a major role to evil, put against the second, marks Whitman's tendency to be Manichean, seeing life as a contest between good and evil. The first line, moreover, justifies his not having stressed the evil in Leaves of Grass, although several poems and many parts of poems, such as section 6 of the otherwise benign "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," express the power of evil felt within or outside the writer. No aspect of Whitman more clearly sets him apart from Emerson and the Concord group, nor binds him closer to common humanity. The second line, declaring a purposeful championing of what is good and what is immortal, implies this as a constant aim of his work from the first. Within the text there is ample reason to take him at his word.

However, the next lines shift the focus away from a moral toward a philosophical perspective: "Haughty this song, its words and scope, / To span vast realms of space and time, / Evolution—the cumulative—growths and generations." Many readers have seen Whitman as an evolutionist. Whitman saw himself that way, but in other than biological terms, as is suggested by these words: "'Leaves of Grass' and evolution are one. . . . We can't know what we are bound to—but bound to something? We can't doubt it—no, can't" (Traubel 458). Close parallels have been noted between the thought of the Jesuit priest and scientist Teilhard de Chardin and, especially, Whitman's "Song of Myself." Teilhard de Chardin saw humankind as slowly moving towards greater intellectual and emotional consciousness. By way of his poems, Whitman intuitively sought for stronger links among all through greater awareness, stronger identities, and a reaching out to others in recognition and love. Although the priest's Christian commitment and Whitman's Manichean tendencies prevent identical outlooks, their belief in the world's progressive psychic growth binds them closely.

This highly compressed lyric gives evidence that Whitman held to the end to his views about the role of poetry and the nature of the world.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Moore, William L. "L. of G.'s Purport: Evolution—The Cumulative." 1980: "Leaves of Grass" at 125: Eight Essays. Ed. William White. Supplement to the Walt Whitman Review. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1980. 45–57.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Vol. 7. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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